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The Joyce Hill Column

January 2023

King Charles I


If you look at the Calendar of Holy Days in Common Worship, you will see that King Charles I, named as ‘Charles, King and Martyr’,  is commemorated on 30 January. A martyr is someone whose death was caused by their persistence in the faith of Christ, and who, through their death, bore witness to their faith. Charles’s elevation to the status of martyr in 1660 was, frankly, a blatant political act.  But the story of how this came about is an interesting one, and I rather mischievously thought it would be a topic for starting 2023, the year when another King Charles will be crowned.

January 30 is the date on which Charles I was beheaded. Martyrs are normally celebrated on the day of their death, so his inclusion in the calendar under this date follows the normal pattern. But the highly political nature of it all is immediately evident from the fact that his designation as a martyr was a means of asserting the Monarchists’ triumph over the republican Puritans at the end of the Civil War. The ecclesiastical Convocations of Canterbury and York, sensing their return to power, chose to make a grand political gesture on 19 May 1660 by declaring Charles I to be canonized. The monarchy itself was formally restored, after  the puritanical republican interlude, in the person of Charles II, son of Charles I, ten days later.

So, how could anyone argue that Charles’s beheading was all about witnessing to the faith? Of course, we are dealing with an era when religion and politics were inseparable: the Civil War was, in a sense, undeniably about religion, or at least the expression of religion, but this was a means of defining and justifying different concepts of power, around which the struggle was played out. The conflict wasn’t really about faith in the way we associate with martyrs. Charles held to a deeply hierarchical High Anglicanism, which for him was actually as much about the nature and power of kingship as it was about belief. The Puritans, by contrast, were much more reformist, taking positions against Charles’s sacramental churchmanship and the somewhat absolutist power that he consequently claimed as the anointed king. In reality, of course, in political terms this meant that the struggle was between king and parliament. For a time the parliamentarians were in the ascendant, to the extent of beheading the king and running the country as a republic (although in truth the Lord Protector’s rule became increasingly kinglike as time went by). The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 seemed to present the kingly party as the victors, and indeed formal High Anglican  sacramentalism, of the kind that the Puritans disliked, was also restored. But in all honesty the restoration was a compromise: the ‘new’ monarchy had for ever lost key elements of its power to Parliament. It was in this context that the newly restored Church of England rushed to canonize Charles I. Not only was there to be a red-letter feast for Charles, but also one to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, and another for the birth of Charles II.

These three triumphalist State Services were omitted from the 1859 Book of Common Prayer by royal and parliamentary authority, but without the agreement of the Convocation of the Church of England, which fought back. In the end, the commemoration of Charles was restored to the liturgical calendar in 1980 (Alternative Service Book), although downgraded to a Lesser Festival, and it persists in Common Worship.


Joyce Hill

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